In light of recent events, particularly the passing of Anthony Bourdain, I’ve become deeply reflective of my own experience. On the day of his death, I wrote this little blurb:
In November 2009, I attempted death by suicide. I failed. After the fact, I was angry that I had to live. Eventually (with the help of a village), I came to realize that even if I physically died, I would remain alive metaphorically – in the memories and words of others. In due time, I found a “why” for living. My first why was travel. Naturally, I gravitated towards Anthony Bourdain and all that he stood for – he was charming, passionate, attractive, curious, an explorer, a pusher of boundaries, a novelty junkie. From No Reservations to Parts Unknown, I was present. He represented inspiration and possibility. In him I saw that by sticking around I’d at least get to see the world. While I’m not exactly sure what led Mr. Bourdain to that edge, I can speak of my own experience. I know what it’s like to feel trapped. I know what it’s like to stare at reality eye to eye and feel consumed by the weight of its meaninglessness, by the magnitude of its emptiness. I’m not writing this to deliver platitudes of positivity that bypass pain, but rather to acknowledge that pain is very real. There are qualified people out there willing to hold space for you and your discomfort without trying to change anything about you. Mr. Bourdain, I hope your soul finds rest and peace. In your honor, I’ll be trying an adventurous meal at a restaurant I’ve never been to.
Ever since my own suicide attempt, I’ve held a space of reverence and curiosity for death. If you look through my writing, you will often come across it in some form – literal or metaphoric. I’ve read about death, taken classes in the realms of thanatology, and have first hand experienced its presence in my life. Over the years, I’ve also learned that rarely is anything in life black or white. I believe that death is life’s greatest transformation agent. It is for that reason that in this piece of writing, I’m going to write about suicide.
Suicide. Often people hear about it and will do everything in their power to avoid the discomfort that it brings about. The Western developed world isn’t the most death positive of societies. In my opinion, it’s a society that actively avoids death in all its many forms. In the past few months, I’ve been philosophically exploring death beyond our individual human experience of the the “self”. In my mental wanderings there were two mechanisms that surfaced that particularly caught my attention: apoptosis (“cell-suicide” or cell-programmed death) and “shooting starts”. Apoptosis comes from the Greek phrase “falling off”. This mechanism naturally occurs in our organism to quite literally keep us healthy. This programmed cell death is what allows us, as humans, to continue to grow and age. For example, the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body is called cancer. The body is so brilliant that it has developed a natural mechanism to keep homeostasis, balance. On the macro scale, there are shooting stars: meteoroids that fall into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn. I’m sure that if I searched for more of these mechanisms, outside of the human individual experience of self, I would find more. A professor I had once said, “The universe destroys itself to recreate itself.” It’s a phrase that has captivated my curiosity throughout the years.
So, if these mechanisms are present in both the micro and macro scales, why do humans have a built-in aversion towards suicide? Of course, you can argue that from an evolutionary stand-point, we’re hard-wired to want our species to thrive, to continue. Yet from a more real human experience perspective, I’d like to present the theory that perhaps our discomfort with suicide is yet another manifestation of our obsession to avoid the d word: death. Death is necessary for life. One without the other would be catastrophic. As I mentioned above, I think death is a change agent that although often unwanted it ensures the continuation we fervently desire. In recent years, the conversation around death has been slowly shifting including that of suicide. The concept of death with dignity or physician assisted suicide has come forth as a potential option for the terminally ill. If we get to choose how we live, why can’t we choose how we die? I’m not at all implying that suicide is “the answer” nor encouraging it, but I think under certain circumstances it’s another option. Now that being said, I’d like to explore the concept of context.
Based on my own experiences and hearing the stories of others, I’ve often noticed that my reactions towards death by suicide vary depending on context. For example, in the case of Brittany Maynard, a woman with terminal brain cancer who chose death with dignity (physician-assisted suicide), I felt an outpouring of respect and compassion. It was a decision that seemed logical, thought-out, and well-planned. She reached out beyond her experience, consulted her loved ones as well as professionals, and made the decision that would best suit her. Her experience seemed to have a different tone than someone unexpectedly taking their life. From my own experience, I feel deep love, empathy, and sorrow for the second scenario – for an unplanned suicide. Why the difference? I recognize that I don’t know it all. I can’t see all perspectives, all truths. From my own failed attempt to the sudden and unexpected deaths by suicide of others, what makes me ache for the scenario, is the intensity of silent pain and suffering the individual may have been undergoing. Depression is real. Accumulated psychic, emotional, and mental pain is very real. Unprocessed trauma is real. Mental health awareness is vital. Yet in addition to a sensibility to mental illness, I think it’s important that we recognize that the culture that we’ve created isn’t conducive to well-being. In the past two-decades the incidence of mental illness has increased. Is it possible that the majority of a society is pathological? Or is it the case that the increased rate in incidence of mental illness is a symptom of a sick culture, of a deeper issue?
In the case of Brittany Maynard, her pain, though not first-hand experienced by the people in her life, was made vocal. It was out in the open. This is not to say that her death wasn’t difficult for her loved ones. I can imagine that it was heart-wrenching as loss can be, but there was an understanding, a knowingness of the pain that was to come. Yet, there are a lot of people that suffer in silence.
So, if you suspect that someone is in deep pain or going through a difficult situation, or even openly declare that they are feeling suicidal, what can you do? Before I begin, I’d like to state that I’m not a licensed mental health professional. What I’m going to write in the sentences to come is based on my experience while being on the edge as well as my listening to the experience of others. First, I’d like to bring up the gift of presence. To be present without trying to change another is in my opinion the ultimate gift of love. I know it can be tempting to try to steer a suffering person to look at the “positive” side of life, but from my experience and that of sitting with others, the power of seeing someone and acknowledging their current reality, regardless of what that may be, is powerful. There is potency in being seen, in being heard, in being held. Secondly, remember why you love them. Remember the beautiful qualities you see in that person and tell them why you care for them and their existence. If possible, try to make it organic and authentic. Try to not make it sound like a “this is why I don’t want to lose you” pre-rehearsed speech. Remind them that they have worth and value by just being. Thirdly, extend invitations. Even if your invitations are not accepted, invite them to hang out, to grab a meal, to grab coffee, to do something they enjoy. Lastly, if you feel at a loss, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from someone that might be able to support you. Having difficult conversations can be one of the most intimidating parts of the human experience.
I haven’t covered the complexity of suicide nor explored all the little nuances that have exploration potential in this think-piece. From living, I’ve gathered that the human experience is grey and in technicolor rather than black and white. Over the years, I’ve learned that even if you have the best of intentions and put forth an incredible amount of effort towards everything you do, sometimes you will lose. Failure is part of the human experience. I’ve also learned, that while you can hold space, love, and be there for another, you don’t get to control other people. We all have our own agency. We all have the right to make choices. And when the choices of another or others in general don’t seem to make sense to you, I invite you to try to make space for the possibility that there might be something to the situation that you can’t see. That there might be a bigger picture and hidden details that may never make their way to the surface. The human experience invites us to make space for mystery. Death, the unknown, is an invitation to reflect in the mysteries of being. Perhaps, there is more to this life than what the eyes can see. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say: in life, there are parts unknown.